Wine & Dine 2006

I can hardly believe it, but we are today celebrating the sixth anniversary of Wine & Dine. I know sixth anniversaries don't usually get a lot of fireworks and silver loving cups, but this particular sixth anniversary is sentimental for me, because we have here the writings of San Francisco-based wine critic Tim Teichgraeber, the person who introduced me to wine as something dynamic, historical, and interesting—and not just stuff old rich people went on too much about.

I can't remember exactly how it all started, but I do know it began, as so many things do, in the back of the 7th St. Entry after a show, when you find you are having one of those Minneapolis days where the city is almost too small to sustain believability. I had already been a restaurant critic for a few years, and had begun to regard wine lists with suspicion: What was I not understanding about what they said? I felt that so much in restaurants conveyed bucketfuls of meaning, from the hand towels in the bathroom to the font on the menu, but the wine lists were largely unclear to me.

Sure, there were short ones and cheap ones and ones that went on for days, but what did they mean, and what were other people reading on them that was invisible to me? With such things in the back of my head, I was introduced one smoky night to Tim, who was then writing wine reviews for the Pulse. We discovered we lived not 200 feet from one another and had half a dozen friends in common. He mentioned he would be tasting a case of wines the next day; while he would need privacy during the day in order to take notes, I was welcome to drop by in the evening to taste them all.

Everything he said sounded completely mad: He was going to taste a case of wine? In a day? And take notes? I spent the next day, a Sunday, wrestling with plaster and taping drywall seams in my house. And though I tried to bow out 10 times, there's only so much protest you can muster when your furniture is on the porch and a friendly glass of wine awaits a few doors down. I do remember showing up with so much plaster on my jeans I couldn't sit down on civilized furniture.

Which was fine, as Tim didn't have any. Tim was rather punk-rock in those days, especially for an attorney. He had been in the band Gneissmaker, and his apartment was one of those $2-couches-and-state-of-the-art-speakers boy apartments. I remember Tim cursing his roommate's slovenliness and checking on the Riedel stemware drying in the sink. He explained to me that he had special stemware for his wine, and special washing-up liquid for his stemware, and that there were some who believed good glassware should not be touched by soap, and that he had to keep his Riedel in cardboard, lest his roommate use and destroy it. I thought he was insane; I thought he was Felix Unger, minus the comedy.

Tim led me in a quick tasting through his assembled wines, about which I remember absolutely nothing, except that they were red. We dumped them in the sink, and I went home that night pretty sure I had met the most eccentric member of my generation.

However, deep within me something must have stirred—or it might have just been laziness. I had no livable living space in my house, and was perfectly happy to spend half a dozen afternoons over the last bit of summer tagging along behind Tim as he went to various private tastings, listening to things he said about wine, and observing the group dynamics of industry wine tasters. I was fully convinced that never had a group of people been so entirely, brimmingly, laughably full of it. The silly things they said—what were these anonymous red fruits? It sounded like something you found in the bottom of the Frankenberry box.

At the time, in the late 1990s, New Zealand whites were either a new thing or a newly popular thing, and we encountered many. People often claimed the wines smelled of lychee, and I thought they were mad, crazy, delusional. I knew what lychees smelled like, from having eaten them in various Asian restaurants, and I knew what wine smelled like, and it didn't smell like lychees. It smelled like wine, and maybe, if you pushed it, a little bit like something that had been cleaned with a lemony substance. No lychees, no lime, no petrol, whatever that was, no ginger, no vanilla, nope, nope, nope.

These people, I thought. These are the most absurd social gatherings ever. They are to the Emperor's New Clothes as the sun is to a match's flame: They all decide something and it gets echoed the world over and billions are spent, careers are made, all on nothing.

Then, one day, out of nowhere, on perhaps my 30th white, it came rushing in, unexpected and unbidden: Hot damn, lychees! There were lychees in that pale glass! In moments all the rest followed: limes, vanilla, lemon rind...I was changed. I saw, or, rather, smelled and tasted, life in a whole new way.

His work done, Tim moved to San Francisco. Years later, I told him my idea of a Gen-X, Gen-Y, millennial-generation-directed wine publication, something for people who were very bright and had a lot of taste, but who didn't understand wine jargon, who wouldn't pick up a copy of Wine Spectator, who were skeptical, thrifty, but knew a good thing when they tasted it. Tim told me I was a good kid, if dim, and to call him if it worked out.

Lo and behold, it did! It is to my utter delight that I get to introduce a wealth of Tim's critical picks of some of the best wines available in Minnesota. I couldn't be more pleased. Not only is Tim a brilliant drinker of wine—he has one of those super-memories for it that allows him to describe bottles he tasted once, years ago—he's also been everywhere and has a wicked bullshit detector, a rare combination of qualities. This year we got him to share with us his picks among Chardonnays, Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, exotic whites, wines for Thanksgiving and for your boss, and wines from Spain, Chile, and Argentina. But if Tim is providing the critical picks, I had to ask, what is there for me to do?

I thought that this year I would go back and address all those Emperor's New Clothes issues that loomed so large for me before my lychee moment. (And my subsequent years of study, but let's gloss over that because it's not very attractive.) In any event, I called up my friends in food and wine both in Minnesota and around the country and asked, "What is it you've always wanted to know about wine, but have been afraid to ask? What is it wine publications fail to tell you?"

These are all bright people who enjoy wine and have been dealing with the stuff on an all-but-daily basis for years, and they had questions that were often the very best kind: deceptively basic. Why is so much good cheap wine Australian? What happens to bad wine? Why do bottles with labels that say the same thing taste so different, and why do different bottles taste the same? Is there any way to cut through the palaver?

We like to think there is, and that this is it. As always, let us know what you think, and if we didn't pull it off this year, we'll try again for lucky number seven.

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